Social science: the right tool for the job

Yesterday here in the office I was having a conversation with a new (and welcome) colleague.  Our topic?

Social science.

[That no doubt comes as a shocking surprise to those of you who’ve been reading the last several posts.]

I was doing most of the talking.

[Don’t say it! That’s hardly a surprise to any of you, either.]

My concern, as a natural scientist? The several barriers, imagined and real, to funding social science within the natural science agencies. [ NSF, DoE, NASA, NOAA, USGS, and several others would be among these.] First, money is tight, across the federal government, not just at these agencies. Funding for the social sciences therefore likely has to come at the expense of existing work, which has already been painstakingly justified, and protected by dint of great effort. Attempt to move that funding around, and vigilant folks within the agency or OMB or on the Hill might say, “Oooh…we didn’t realize you didn’t need that money. Thank you very much!” [and return it to the Treasury.]

Second, to many political leaders and policy officials, natural science and engineering look policy-neutral (probably an over-simplification here, but that’s another story for another day). By contrast, social research, even basic social research – studies in psychology, sociology, economics, history, anthropology, political science, and more – can sometimes look disturbingly close to having a policy slant or being grist for someone else’s political spin. [NSF-watchers may recall Senator Tom Coburn’s report of last spring, entitled National Science Foundation: Under the Microscope. A Wikipedia article on this report and its reception can be found here.]

A third challenge? There’s so little social-science capacity within the agencies that it’s difficult to spool-up the needed work. Agencies need enough talent in place to be comfortable with the priorities, to know the community and the best-and-brightest within it, and to run grant processes and build much-needed organizational frameworks. [The closest we come to having the needed brainpower in place is usually in economics, but even here, in many of the agencies, that perspective is in short supply.]

Anyway, I was animatedly spotting and enumerating these and other bears in the woods.

My new colleague had been quiet up to a point. Then she spoke:

“But the fact is, Bill, social sciences are the tools needed to carry out the agency missions.”

Spot on.

The correct frame is: what’s needed to meet the agency mandate?

Fact is, that for agencies attempting to harness Earth observations, science, and services to public benefit, to use those investments to foster economic growth, protect the environment and ecosystems, and provide for public health and safety in the face of natural hazards – facility with the social sciences is non-negotiable.

Natural scientists and engineers have seen this again and again, as we’ve blundered through the rapidly changing, increasingly networked, and highly factionalized social and political landscape.

We thought we were so good at this! We thought we could wing it! Instead, it seems our every effort to warn (whether in a frame of minutes, as with the oncoming tornado, or decades, as with water resources, coral bleaching, etc.), to teach, to characterize uncertainty – in short, to help – has instead led to public confusion, irritation, impatience, and worse. And our listening skills? Pathetic.

[Okay, that might be a little harsh.]

We keep being forced back to the same inescapable reality: we need to be as disciplined in reaching out to the public footing the bills and whom we’re trying to serve as we are in our natural science. And social scientists, while not the only actors in this process (which also includes policymakers, practitioners, educators, journalists, and the general public) are nonetheless key players.

I’m reminded of my early experiences as a householder. You probably share a similar history. Few get to buy the house of their dreams. Most of us instead are fortunate if we can buy a house that will do. This means that almost every home comes with a lot of deficiencies that need correcting, maintenance and repairs that need done, many on an urgent basis. So homeowners find themselves painting. Doing electrical work. Plumbing. And more.

Seems cheaper than calling in the professionals. But is it really?

Let’s take plumbing. Whether it’s replacing a faucet, changing out a disposal, fixing a leak or two, we quickly discover when we try to do it ourselves that our lack of tools and parts inventory magnifies the cost and time required to do any one job many times over. With the right tool (and that plumber arrives with a van-full), the job is a matter of minutes. Trying to kluge a work-around? Add hours to your labor. Compound this with an increased risk that your repair won’t stand up. Then there’s the non-monetizable part…the threat to your marriage relationship – in the short term, when the cursing starts, and over the longer haul, when the repair fails. Many times, you’re better off hiring that plumber.

That’s what my colleague was saying.

In closing, let’s paraphrase a former science advisor to the president, D. Allan Bromley. In a famous  1999 Washington Post article (the article is well worth rereading), he said “No science, no surplus.”

To which we might echo, “No social science? No societal benefit.”

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